The Dynamics of American Politics: Approaches and Interpretations

By Lawrence C. Dodd; Calvin Jillson | Go to book overview

10
The Social Psychology of Politics

MURRAY EDELMAN

Psychological explanations of political phenomena focus largely on the nonrational and the irrational. It is, unfortunately, all too easy to find examples of major political actions throughout American history that illustrate the conspicuous role of nonrational factors in shaping behavior, in allocating praise and blame, and in otherwise interpreting historical events. More often than not the key dynamic in such developments is the shaping of political action and thought in order to rationalize private interests and prejudices, even while those who act and those who support them remain convinced that rationality, not rationalization, explains their behavior and their thinking ( Lasswell, 1930).

The key historical examples involve precisely those beliefs that have been most strongly cherished by a large part of the population, most assiduously taught to children, and most frequently proclaimed in patriotic oratory. We are taught, for example, that the United States is a democratic and pluralistic society that provides an equitable voice for all group interests and settles conflicts through evenhanded procedures. This reassuring assumption continues to be the dominant view in spite of the fact that throughout American history minorities and dissidents have been repressed, often violently. The roster of victims has included African Americans, labor unions, strikers, Catholics, pacifists, Chinese, Japanese, the poor, all kinds of political radicals, and, not infrequently, Jews, women, and homosexuals ( Zinn, 1980). Beliefs that reassure and strengthen the dominant groups persist as dogma regardless of inconvenient and contradictory facts. When political beliefs on controversial subjects do describe the world adequately, that is only incidental to their primary function: to further the interests and ideologies of those who can get them disseminated and accepted.

The riots and rebellions that have frequently broken out throughout American history offer another example of the widespread reinterpretation of events so as to conform to ideology and reinforce it. As they occur,

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